Conducting Multi-Faith Dialogue More Important than Ever


By Saundra Sterling Epstein

On a bright Thursday morning this past November, about 30 people of various faiths — Jews, Christians and Muslims — were seated around a table at the Masjidullah in West Oak Lane. The group was there to share our faiths and foundational beliefs with each other, following the teachings of respect from each of our faith traditions and the notion that our respective systems of belief ask us to be the best we can possibly be.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin teaches that God could have made all people the same, but did not turn them out as mass-produced coins, identical copies of one model. Rather, God intentionally created all people different so that we can all learn from each other and see the widest range of what God has created.

Similarly, the Quran teaches that God could have made us all the same if God wanted to do so, but God chose not to do so in order that we learn from each other and all work toward doing good works. Likewise, Christianity also seeks to instill a sense of calm and respect for humanity in its many teachings, calling those who do not care about and accept others to task.

The Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council, which co-sponsored the program at the Masjidullah, has existed since 2001. As explained by its founder, Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, “it was founded to try to bring some healing to the community after 9/11 and to encourage all of us to share our angst and concerns with each other in a constructive way.”

Paralleling the impetus that led to the beginning of this organization, which is facilitated exclusively by volunteer clergy and lay leaders in the community, we find ourselves today in a most-difficult time of fractured loyalties, conflict, too many hurtful words and such. It is precisely in this climate that the last two-and-a-half years have seen tremendous growth and the increased reach of this council in its activities.

Our members hail from New Jersey, Philadelphia, Montgomery County, Hatboro, Springfield and other communities — extending well beyond the confines its name would suggest.

We provide monthly programs and run community forums twice per year.

Topics we have addressed include women and models of spirituality; inclusion of LGBTQ members in all of our faith communities; relations between the church, synagogue and mosque as communities of faith; reactions to the visit of Pope Francis in the fall of 2015 to this area; engaging with our Muslim brothers and sisters in faith; and so much else.

Recently, we hosted Noa Baum, who performed her one-woman show A Land Twice Promised. Through the sharing of real stories of Palestinian women and Israeli women who want the same things for their families and children, the hope is to build bridges of understanding and caring amid what are often complex and fractured larger contexts.

During our monthly programs, we have worked cooperatively with the police department; served as a resource to the school district; learned about PAR-recyle and related environmental sustainability issues; learned about Israel: Beyond the Conflict and how hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Jews and Christians are participating in cooperative ventures; brought faith communities to share the experience of being in a sukkah; attended an iftar dinner; memorialized victims of horrible hate crimes; and celebrated our respective heritages while finding so many similarities among us, and simultaneously honoring and respecting our differences.

We all know the adage that evil happens when good people do nothing. In our country, so many are stepping up and trying to build bridges to join us, not construct fences to divide us. This is the work of the council. It is healing work, it is shared dialogue and it is acknowledging that we are all part of the same human family and should be invested in caring about and appreciating each other.

While our programs have touched several hundred participants over the past several years, it should also be noted that everyone goes back to their respective faith communities and the message gets a much wider exposure. This is how we all make a difference — both individually by being committed to standing together when needed and learning about each other at all times and collectively as a wider community of faith groupings.

Saundra Sterling Epstein is a co-president of the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council.


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